Before Evaluating Teachers, How About Supporting Them?
More fundamental changes need to be made in public education before time is spent revamping teacher evaluation. It seems to me that a lot of new evaluation schemes attempt to hold teachers accountable for factors they don't control and penalize them for shortcomings for which they are not responsible.
Although changes in teacher evaluation need to happen (especially if they have positive effects on student achievement), the intense discussion about teacher evaluation's importance is premature. Until we support teachers adequately, find useful ways of assessing their efficacy, and eliminate the ridiculous notion that student achievement is synonymous with standardized test scores, improvements in teacher evaluation systems will either make only small improvements in student achievement in some schools or harm it in others.
How Should Teachers Be Evaluated?
Teachers know that a lot of the work that goes into creating a highly functioning classroom is done outside of the school day. It's done during phone calls home to parents; during conferences with students after school; and during planning, curricular development, and grading. However, in four of the five schools I've worked at, my evaluators (all of whom have been administrators except for one master educator in Washington, D.C.) have all been far too busy to gather evidence of my abilities as a teacher outside of the short classroom observation.
Teachers also know that classroom observations provide evaluators with plenty of basic information regarding a teacher's ability to relate with students, use effective classroom management techniques, and respond to student misunderstanding. However, they do not allow evaluators to see all the work teachers do after school, long-term instruction over multiple days, or the way teachers collaborate with their colleagues.
So it seems clear that the limited classroom observation model of teacher evaluation has significant flaws. A number of teacher evaluation systems have been constructed across the United States in an attempt to address this flaw. In the District of Columbia, IMPACT asks evaluators to consider teachers' expertise in a number of different domains, using test scores as one indicator of teacher effectiveness. Other states have recently passed laws requiring test scores be included in teacher evaluations. In some states, teachers who do not teach tested subjects have evaluations based in part on the way their students perform in the tested subjects they don't teach (you can read a beautiful critique of that idea here).
Useful? Maybe sometimes for some teachers. A large body of growing evidence, however, suggests that these evaluation models are unreliable at identifying teachers who are actually good at getting students to learn the things they should be learning.
If the purpose of teacher evaluation is to support teachers' professional development and occasionally remove ineffective teachers from the classroom, then it's clear that we have a long way to go before we create a system that's useful. After teaching in four states, in five schools, and under six evaluators, I cannot honestly say that I've made any significant professional development because of my evaluations. Sure, I've had a few useful conversations about what I might do differently with a particular lesson, but the real objective of all of the evaluations in my career has been to fill out the district-required paperwork. And there was that one evaluation in the District of Columbia in which my evaluator tried to tarnish my reputation for writing negative things about that school in my blog.
Could Best Classroom Assessment Practices Be the Model?
When I really sit down and think about creating teacher evaluations that would be useful and meaningful, I think about successful ways I've found to evaluate my students. I spend a lot of time supporting them in thinking about ways they're supposed to improve and asking them how they might show me that they're improving. It means communicating expectations to them clearly and often so that they come to believe in the utility of what we're doing in class. It means supporting them in thinking about their own development and that of their peers. I think my evaluation system is most effective when self- and peer assessments occur often and teacher-led assessments occur habitually but less often. If teacher evaluation is going to be about supporting teachers and not firing them, then I believe a similar system would work better than what we currently use.
As much as teacher evaluation could use work, I can't help but feel that I'm contributing to a conversation that is a major red herring. Money and time spent revamping teacher evaluation, especially in poor schools, will be significantly less useful than offering teachers real support, lowering class sizes, purchasing basic materials, improving community relationships . . . and the list goes on. But that's generally not what moves educational opportunists up the career ladder in our current reform environment.
Yes—let's talk about improving teacher evaluation, but let's not make it the first item on our agenda. Let's put it on the back burner until we've solved some of education's more fundamental problems.
James Boutin teaches 9th grade language arts and literacy and 10th grade world history at the Academy of Citizenship and Empowerment in the Highline School District in SeaTac, Wash. This article has been adapted with permission from his blog An Urban Teacher's Education.
ASCD Express, Vol. 7, No. 15. Copyright 2012 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.